Bixonic Expandora EXP-2000R Distortion Review

The Bixonic Expandora EXP 2000R is a unique looking pedal, with a novel approach and style that sets it apart from today’s invasion of new overdrive units. A reissue of the original Expandora 2000, the new unit incorporates some new sounds and design updates from the original. Within the confines of its sturdy housing, it contains a broad palette of sounds for the player looking to sample some different flavors of overdrive without having to commit to the cost or space of several individual pedals.

Construction

Bixonic Expandora EXP-2000RThe Expandora is housed in a small, circular metal enclosure about the size of two hockey pucks stacked atop each other. The stainless steel finish is bright and smartly inlayed in red with the Expandora logo and control knob labels. A red on/off indicator light sits atop the row of three small DIP switches used to configure the Expandora’s various sounds. The input/output jacks have the normal orientation, with the input on the right and the output on the left side. A single pushbutton bypass switch is located at the bottom of the Expandora’s face. A 9-volt adapter socket is located at the top of the unit and accepts the standard Boss-style adapter units that are readily available, but the Expandora did not come with an adapter supplied. To access the battery, you simply remove the one screw that holds the backplate on the unit. In a clever move to help you operate the pedal, the backplate has the Mode settings silk-screened on it. A four-page owner’s manual clearly explains the different modes and their operation.

For a smaller-sized pedal, the Expandora has a nice heft and a solid feel. All of the components are mounted well, making their operation easy. While the spacing is almost cramped, you can still adjust the controls quickly on the fly and the bright face of the unit makes for great visibility. Each of the knobs turns smoothly and retains their settings well. And, in a change from previous versions of the Expandora, the EXP-2000R has moved the DIP switches that configure the sounds from inside to the face of the pedal. This makes switching between the sounds much easier than having to reopen the unit each time you want to change the mode settings. The switches are clearly labeled but very close together and have an almost fragile feel compared to the other controls. However, by placing them atop the control knobs and away from the footswitch greatly reduces the chance of switching or damaging them while playing. After you’ve set them a few times, you’ll be able to remember the way each configuration looks.

In a wise move to ensure better reliability, the input/output jacks are mounted directly to the chassis of the pedal and connected to the circuit board via flying leads. By doing this, you can prevent a lot of stress to the circuit board and more easily replace the jacks if necessary. The layout inside of the pedal is tight, but accommodating. The unit was supplied with a Duracell alkaline battery, which fits snugly into a space between the jacks and bypass switch. All of the connections were neatly soldered, components were solidly mounted and the wiring smartly kept to a minimum.

Because of its size and shape, the Expandora could be a blessing or an issue on a pedalboard. The round shape prevents it from fitting in small pedal cases designed for rectangular Boss-style pedals, but its small profile could find itself a home in an unused odd spot on a free layout board. With a shiny silver face that stands out, you’ll never have a problem finding it in a crowd of effects on a dark stage.

Now that we’ve given the Expandora a good look on the inside and the outside, we can finally plug it in and start twiddling some knobs.




Operation

The Expandora features four different overdrive/distortion/fuzz modes that you access with two DIP switches on the face. Looking from left to right; the first switch is labeled D1, which has a Hi and Lo setting. The second switch is labeled D2 and also has a Hi and Lo setting. The third DIP switch is the Ins or Instrument selector, which allows for you to select the Expandora to work for either guitar or bass, but we’ll concentrate on the first two switches for now.

With these switches, you can select from the Crunch, Overdrive, Distortion and Forbidden modes. The first three modes are variations on some familiar overdrive/distortion pedals, such as an Ibanez Tubescreamer, an MXR Distortion + or a DOD 250. The basic tones available ranged from very modest to moderately heavy gain and all-out sonic assault.

Because there can be some subtle differences between the types of gains, it can be hard to distinguish them with an already overdriven sound, so I tried the Expandora for the first time through a clean amp to get a handle on each of the modes tonal characteristics. The amps used were a silverface Fender VibroChamp combo and a Carvin X-60 head through a 1972 Marshall cabinet loaded with greenback speakers. The test guitars were a stock Fender ‘60s reissue Stratocaster with single coils and a Gibson SG Standard with Seymour Duncan 59 PAF-style pickups, so that pickup output was less of a factor.

Sounds

By setting both of the Expandora’s switches to the top or Lo positions, you can enter the Crunch mode. This mode has the least available gain of the four modes, so at first, the Crunch label seems a little misleading. With the controls at noon into the clean Champ, it was more of "gritty edge" rather than a crunchy tone, giving my Strat a raspier attack. Fooling with the Tone control worked well to cut some of the overall brightness and fill out the mids. Even through the Champ’s 8-inch speaker, the Expandora retained the bottom end clank. By cranking the volume of the Champ to get some amp overdrive and then adding the Expandora, you get some nice punchy sustain that worked well with either of the pickups. While still not a fully overdriven tone, the harmonics bloomed nicely with a gentle vibrato applied to the notes.

The Expandora made the Champ very touch sensitive, giving it a wider range of response by simply varying the pick attack. Rolling back the guitar volume cleaned up the sound quickly while retaining the sensitivity. By adjusting the amp volume and the amount of boost from the Expandora, I had an easy clean/dirty switch simply by using the guitar’s volume knob. For fun, I backed off the Expandora’s gain all the way and used the Level control at 3 o’clock to make a clean boost. With the Champ set low again, I could get a punchy clean lead sound without any grit, which could prove useful when using a Strat alongside an humbucker-equipped guitar.

By moving onto the much larger Carvin (two 6L6GC @ 60 watts) and a 4×12 cabinet, the Expandora showed off an impressive "knock" in the bottom end when pushing the cabinet. I set the head for a mild overdrive and let the Expandora drive the front end hard with the Gain and Level at 3 o’clock and the Tone at noon. It made the normally stiff Carvin much more sensitive, there was plenty of gain for a good classic rock sound and you could bring up a fairly crunchy chunk with some palm muting. The Level control proved very effective in varying the saturation of the gain, while the Gain acted to vary the headroom available. Adjusting the Tone control a slightly brighter made the chords ring out a little more and gave the leads some smooth cut. Adding more gain to the Carvin let the Expandora give a saturated tone, which bordered on heavy with a humbucker.

Things still cleaned up very nicely via the guitar volume control and the unit was not very noisy, even with the volume down and the unit engaged. The pedal is not listed as "true bypass" but it did not seem to color the tone of the guitar when not engaged. As with any overdrive unit, there was some additional hiss when engaged, but nothing overboard or annoying. All of the controls provided plenty of adjustment and it was easy to find useful tones throughout their range. Using the Crunch to push an already overdriven amp to saturation is where this mode shines. The Crunch setting exhibited a lot of the character that is present in almost all of the Expandora’s modes.

The Overdrive mode (D1 – Hi, D2 – Lo) picks up where the Crunch mode leaves off and offers a little more gain and attitude. It also seemed brighter when played with the Strat into Carvin’s clean channel. There was more body to the overdrive and a satisfying clank to the open chords. This mode has a little more of a hump in the midrange and sounds closer to an Ibanez Tubescreamer than the Crunch setting. Both of the clean amps responded well to this setting (Gain and Level past noon) and again the Tone control rounded off some of the brightness. With the all the gain available in this mode, you could carry off a gritty Stones-like rhythm sound through a clean amp. Once kicked into the Carvin’s dirty channel with the SG, however, the Overdrive mode came alive.

Because of its heft over the Crunch mode, the Overdrive really fattened up the heavy rhythm tone, especially in the mids. This made it easy to make legato leads roll off the fretboard and chords sustain into feedback even with a moderate overdrive on the amp. As with the Crunch mode, using the Gain and Level controls characterized the amount of saturation and sustain you can get. In this mode you lose a little of the open chord clarity, due to the gain, but it works really well to beef up power chords and leads. The chunk factor increases and getting a Tool-like heavy sound was easy through the Carvin.

While the SG was plugged in, I tried the Distortion mode (Lo & Hi respectively) with similar settings (Gain and Level past noon, Tone at noon) and the first impression was a darker, harder sound that flattened out a little on the bottom end. This was perfect for a chunky metal rhythm sound, especially with the brighter Carvin getting its high end tamed. In this mode, the Expandora resembles an MXR Distortion + or Boss SD-1 pedal with a harder distortion rather than a mild overdrive. This has the most gain of the three modes covered so far and through a clean amp it could be a little edgy, especially with the single coils. The SG fleshed it out more, but like the Crunch and Overdrive modes, the Distortion mode really shines when boosting an overdriven tube amp.

With the SG and the Carvin dirty channel, using the gain and Level controls at 3 0’clock yielded a tight but saturated rhythm tone that easily chunked when muted. It brought the amp to the edge of a metal tone, but the combination of the Carvin and greenbacks got a little mushy on fast downstrokes. Pick response was fast and accurate and it tracked well on neck pickup speed runs up the fretboard. Open chords had less clarity unless the volume was backed off a bit, but this mode also cleans up pretty well. Still, the extra gain and tighter bottom made for a good solid lead tone and definitely improved the character of the Carvin’s usually nasal tone. I chose this amp because of its difficult dirty sound and the Expandora did much to improve the tone.

Just for fun, I moved over to an early JCM800 2204 master volume head with a matching 4×12 with G12T75s, which is a bright sounding rig on its own to see if the darker Distortion mode would even that sound out. With the amp set on 4 for master and 5 for gain (tones all at 5), the Distortion mode (set like above, all past noon) definitely shone through as true metal. It immediately evoked shades of Rhoads or Judas Priest tones with this setup. The darker mids and flatter bottom set with plenty of gain gave palm mutes lots of cut and the chords rang out hard. Any difference in pick pressure or attitude was immediately noticeable and with the headroom of the Marshall’s 6550 power tubes, you could still manage a clean sound with a very light touch and the volume way back. The other two modes responded well to the big amp, too. They allowed more headroom and clarity, but this mode was made to rock and that’s where it should spend its time, blasting the front end of a big, blazing tube amp.

In the manual, the manufacturer advises that you do not use the Forbidden mode (both switches to Hi) to " inflict unacceptably hysteric sound onto your audience like a 60s Fuzz pedal." If you notice, they did not call this the Fuzz mode, and there is good reason. When tried through a clean amp, the Forbidden mode yielded a raspy, squealing, spitty fuzz sound of sorts that would not clean up unless the volume was almost off, and it didn’t clean up much. As you play notes through it, it chops them up and spits them out almost randomly amid a stuttering torrent of high-pitched squeals. At first, a dying battery was my main suspect, but I changed to the power supply with the same result.

It is not a smooth fuzz or a wooly fuzz; it’s a violent assault, sounding something like a broken CB radio fueled by crack cocaine submerged in stomach bile. It is a pedal dying a loud, violent death on demand. This could be a good thing; for it instantly creates chaos and would surely annoy any bystanders/victims, so you could switch to it for a Who-like meltdown at the end of the night or treat it with delay and other effects to create additional madness. Think of it as an odd bonus to the other three modes.

The Bixonic Expandora EXP-2000R packs a lot of sounds into its shiny, round case. Between the three main overdrive modes, you can cover plenty of territory in both clean and dirty sounds. By experimenting, one can find uses for the different overdrive tones across different guitars and amp setups. It may not have the boutique appeal of other high-priced overdrive units, but it is a cost-effective and space-saving way to cover several different overdrive pedal sounds. Use it as a clean solo boost, add grit to your rhythm sound or lay down the chunk with the same pedal. Or create new enemies with the Forbidden mode. With its solid tones and eye-catching design and graphics, the Expandora will win a place on many pedalboards.